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They Opened Their Hearts & Their Home

Sanctuary-AOK HUG
They opened their home to dozens of young people. Then he learned he could give one more thing: A kidney.

David Simpson, left, and Madeline Hernandez, 20, exchange a high-five during the weekly dinner Simpson and his wife, Kathy Fletcher, provide for young men and women they support at their family home in Washington. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

David Simpson is donating his kidney to a young woman Thursday in Washington, D.C., because his tissue is a perfect match, and her kidneys are failing and slowly poisoning her.

Simpson didn’t have to do it; he had an out. “They told me they’d write me a letter saying they rejected me if I wanted,” Simpson said of his doctor.

But Simpson, 57, and his wife, Kathy Fletcher, 56, never take the easy way out. Their life’s work has become pushing the boundaries of what it means to give to young people, many with dire life stories, who are just entering adulthood and are hungry or don’t have a place to live or enough money for college or countless other needs.

It started around 2010 when they began helping friends of Fletcher’s son, Santiago, while he was in middle and high school. But years later they had become so engrossed in helping young people that Simpson decided to quit his job working for a nonprofit that advocates for campaign finance reform to dedicate himself to it full time.

“We said yes — step by step by step — until we had eight kids living in our house,” said Simpson, referring to last year, when all their beds were full. They convinced neighbors to take in another few young people they didn’t have room to house.

In fact, the 20-year-old woman who is getting Simpson’s kidney, Madeline Hernandez, ​lives with Simpson and Fletcher, one of four young people in their 20s, most of them artists, who are ​now part of their makeshift family.

But the couple also helps an extended family of about 40 other young people through a nonprofit they created two years ago named, appropriately, All Our Kids, or AOK. And the world of people who assist and support the effort — with donated funds or tickets, time, an extra bed or a few dozen cookies — include friends, family and famous musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell and Citizen Cope.

“What we’re doing is insane,” jokes Simpson, as he tries to explain the tribe of young people he and his wife have informally adopted.

For Simpson, giving his kidney to one of his “kids” was a simple decision once he realized he was a match — an almost miraculous coincidence given the odds of about 1 in 10,000.

“Of course I’m going to do it,” he said.

One friend led to another

When he was a student at Alice Deal Middle School in D.C., Santiago brought home a friend who needed a meal. One friend in need led to another and another, until Santiago’s house became the go-to hangout spot in high school.

“We started establishing relationships with these kids, and we realized there were things they weren’t getting, not because of love but because their family didn’t have it — clothes, bikes, lots of things,” Simpson said.

As Simpson and Fletcher listened to their life stories, they figured out they could help here and there.

If someone needed a shirt, they’d buy one or give one of their own. If someone needed help filling out financial aid forms, or finding a lawyer or counselor, they could depend on Simpson and Fletcher. The couple also tried to give them undivided attention and guidance, and regular family dinners, which many had never had before.

A few kids started spending the night. One didn’t have a home after his mother lost her job and she went to stay with a sibling. Another had lived with his grandmother who passed away. Yet another wasn’t getting along with her parents and was living on friends’ couches after her parents kicked her out.

Kathy Fletcher receives a hug from Ryan Harvey, 22, who arrives for the weekly dinner for the young men and women Fletcher and David Simpson provide at their family home in Washington, D.C. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Simpson and Fletcher are financially comfortable but not wealthy; as her day job, Fletcher runs an arts educational program through the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Their three-bedroom home in the Crestwood neighborhood of the District is warm but not fancy. Yet compared to the young people they were helping launch into adulthood — kids who had been without a safety net as they coped with the fallout of sexual assaults, violence, homelessness and other trauma — they had more than enough to share.

Plus, Fletcher grew up with nine siblings, 14 aunts and uncles and 74 first cousins in an Irish Catholic family on Long Island. So a house is not a home for her without some foot stomping, singing and laughter. She also has a deep commitment to civil justice and looking out for those who are vulnerable.

“I feel like we all have a shared responsibility in this world to take care of people,” she said.

As word got out in the friend group and in the D.C. artists community Fletcher was connected to, more kids started showing up — and hanging out, and staying over in a spare room. In the summer of 2016, Fletcher and Simpson encouraged several of their “kids” to apply to college, and they all got in.

“We were like, ‘We don’t have any money,’ ” Simpson said. “They have some financial aid but that doesn’t cover costs of college.”

Fletcher and Simpson talked to a bunch of friends who committed to giving money if they formalized what they were doing. So the couple created a nonprofit and Simpson left his job. They held some local fundraisers and some in New York. Fletcher was able to get cellist Ma to donate VIP tickets to an AOK auction, and violinist Bell has performed at three benefit concerts for them.

Generosity such as that is the financial backbone of AOK, as Simpson and Fletcher now help to support 15 kids in college with either tuition assistance, a monthly stipend or both — and they give various other young people things as needs become apparent: computers, toiletries, shoes, advice. They also have started an arts collective with donated space where the young artists can get together and show their work.

The four young people who reside with them now mostly live in a converted garage and partially finished basement. The house rules include respect, kindness and honesty. They rarely have problems. Once their car was stolen by a guy who was living with them — but he left it four blocks away and never came back.

“The peer component is the most important thing,” Simpson said. “They challenge each other to make good choices.”

Family dinners

While Fletcher and Simpson have opened their home and hearts to kids for years, a kidney donation is a new level of giving.

Fletcher loves Hernandez as a daughter, too, she said, but she was hoping somebody on the list of potential donors other than her husband would be a match because she was concerned about the medical risk.

But when the news came back, and Simpson was medically cleared to be a donor, she felt like it was meant to be. She didn’t want to fight fate.

“When it turned out to be him, it was like grace,” Fletcher said.

For years, the family has been hosting Thursday night dinners at their home for anywhere from 20 to 30 guests, mostly AOK kids, as well as a group of Simpson and Fletcher’s neighbors and friends who both support them and enjoy their energy.

Thalya Contreras, 20, helps set the dinner table at the family home of Kathy Fletcher and David Simpson in Washington, D.C. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

This time, they hosted a big, tearful pre-kidney donation dinner Tuesday night as a send-off before Simpson and Hernandez went to back-to-back five-hour surgeries at Georgetown University Hospital.

Sara Pratt, a civil rights attorney who regularly comes to weekly dinners to offer guidance and support, was among those who showed up.

“I feel like I’m an aunt,” Pratt said.

Pratt was joined at the table by a few neighbors and about 15 AOK kids ranging in age from 17 to 24. Dinner rules are to put your napkin on your lap, take seconds of the food and tuck your cellphone away. They generally go around the table and talk about things they’re thankful for, or anything that’s on their mind. Emotions are often laid bare.

One by one, the guests each told a story of how a friend brought them to this home for dinner either years or months ago, and they’ve been coming back since. Several choked up about how much AOK means to them.

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve this,” said Chynajah Lewis, 20, a student at Howard University as tears streamed down her face. She explained how she met James Drosin, 21, who is a part of AOK, and how he brought her for dinner. After that, Simpson and Fletcher started helping to pay for her college when her mother could no longer afford it.

Many said they were initially confused about what AOK is. One of the first things they noticed was that Fletcher and Simpson are white and that most everyone they are helping is a person of color. Simpson is upfront about this, and says he does not purposely seek out people of color, but he also does not shy away from using his “white privilege” to help others.

One woman at the table said the first time she showed up for dinner the racial differences made an impression on her. “I’m not going to lie, I was like, ‘Is this a cult?’ she said, getting big laughs. Lewis added she felt the same way, but thought: “’Okay, I’ve got this, I’ve been to summer camp.’ ”

Lewis said her mother wound up in a domestic violence shelter with her younger sister, unable to continue paying her college tuition.

A woman who would identify herself only as Tahrook, 24, shared how she grew up in the slums of the Philippines. “I know how it feels to have nothing,” she said.

Shaughn Cooper, 23, said a friend brought him to dinner for the first time at Christmas. Simpson and Fletcher gave him a present ​to unwrap. “I hadn’t gotten a Christmas present in years,” said Cooper, who is now a freelance photographer.

Young adults and neighbors gather at the family home of David Simpson and Kathy Fletcher in Washington, D.C. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Hernandez’s turn to talk

When it was Hernandez’s turn to talk at the dinner, she said she was “having a weird day.” She had just come back from dialysis.

Her medical problems started in 2016, when a few months after she moved in, Simpson took her to the dentist, who tested her blood pressure and told her to go right to the emergency room. At Children’s National Medical Center, she was diagnosed with kidney disease, and was told at some point she’d need a new kidney.

Things got worse over time. “She was getting sicker and sicker in front of our eyes,” Fletcher said.

Over the summer, her kidney function dropped so much that doctors said it was time for a transplant.

Simpson started working the phones to find possible donors. He had a list of eight people who were willing to donate, including some of her family members. Also on the list was his neighbor Paul Budde, husband of Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese at Washington National Cathedral.

The Buddes are close friends of theirs who have taken in several AOK kids whom Fletcher and Simpson did not have room for, including two who are living at the Budde home.

But Simpson got the call instead, and now he and the young woman he thinks of as a daughter were waiting for one of his vital organs to become hers.

Hernandez shared her own story of meeting Simpson and Fletcher.

For David Simpson, second from right, giving his kidney to Madeline Hernandez was a simple decision once he realized he was a match — an almost miraculous coincidence given the odds of about one in 10,000. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

She had been fighting with her parents and sleeping on friends’ couches when she met the couple through friends, she said, and they gave her a room in their house.

“I was having a hard time, I wasn’t fitting in anywhere,” she said.

She had problems trusting, and at first stayed in her room, begging off from dinner often. As time went on, she started to come to dinner and open up. She would not have imagined she’d still be in their lives three years later, she said.

“If you invest a little of yourself into people, you can get that back,” said Hernandez, a student at the University of the District of Columbia.

Now she said they’re like her second family. And despite her anxieties, Hernandez told the group, she was ready for go time.

“I’m taking David’s kidney with me,” she said with a wide smile.

David Simpson and Madeline Hernandez at Georgetown University Hospital Thursday morning as Simpson is about to undergo surgery to donate a kidney to her. (Kathy Fletcher)

Allison Klein has been a reporter at The Washington Post since 2004, with a hiatus from 2013 to 2017. She anchors the Inspired Life blog, writing about surprising or unusual tales of humanity. She spent many years covering crime, policing and police policy. Previously, she worked at the Baltimore Sun and the Miami Herald.

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